Can SpaceX Benefit from NASA’s Share of the Economic Stimulus Package?

The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)
The Falcon 9/Dragon launch configuration for crew transport. Note the launch escape rocket added to the Dragon capsule nose cone (SpaceX)

Over the weekend, I discussed the pros and cons of a recent article written by Mars Society President Robert Zubrin. In his discussion for a Washington D.C. political website, he outlined his thoughts on how to enrich the US economy. One of the points raised was the argument that a manned mission to Mars would have a huge economic impact on the USA; creating jobs, invigorating science education and boosting national well being. This is a worthy argument that, in principal, holds a lot of merit. After all, the Apollo Program in the 1960’s had a lasting effect on the US, creating jobs in the aerospace industry, bolstering the economy and creating a generation of highly skilled scientists and engineers.

So why not do Apollo 2.0? Send man to Mars as a measure to recreate the economic benefits generated by the Space Race against the Soviet Union. Unfortunately, no modern government would sensibly invest in such a plan. There is no political incentive to do so (well, no acute incentive that requires the US to “beat” a competing superpower in the race to strategically dominate space).

But what if the recent economic $800+ billion stimulus package could be used to stimulate another, burgeoning sector of space flight, that has both political and financial merit?

Elon Musk’s SpaceX is asking the same question. Could NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) contracts get a boost in funding, accelerating a commercial answer to the looming 5-year gap in US manned spaceflight? This is where SpaceX needs your help…
Continue reading “Can SpaceX Benefit from NASA’s Share of the Economic Stimulus Package?”

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Can a Mission to Mars Stimulate the Economy?

Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)
Could a NASA manned mission to Mars really stimulate the economy? (Mars Society/Ian O'Neill)

When times get tough, the world needs visionaries.

Visionaries find solutions, they invent systems and invoke change. One such figure in current events with a weight of 300 million people on his shoulders, is the new US President Barack Obama. His entire political campaign is based on bringing change to the USA (and the world), making him the most prominent political figure out there. Is he a visionary? Some would argue that he is, others would say that history will decide that point. I’m on the fence as to whether Obama will find historic solutions to these seemingly insurmountable global crises. But the thing I admire about the new US President is that he is a strong leader, and sometimes, that is all a country needs to pull itself from the precipice and back to prosperity.

So, the Obama-backed $800+ billion economic stimulus package is currently pumping through the system to eventually be divvied up and sent to areas of the economy that need to be reinvigorated. In principal, it’s a good idea. But what if it fails? Unfortunately there’s an awful lot more riding on Obama’s shoulders than 300 million hopes; $800 billion of their taxes will be keeping the new President awake until the early hours. If this all goes right, Barack Obama will go down as one of history’s visionaries; if it all goes wrong… well, let’s just not go there for the time being

There will be critics of any economic bailout, and others who think there are better options. Robert Zubrin, founder and President of the Mars Society, has come forward with his suggestions to aid economic recovery…
Continue reading “Can a Mission to Mars Stimulate the Economy?”

Why Are Clandestine Space Launches So Sexy?

A Delta IV Heavy launches... but to where? (AFSC)
A Delta IV Heavy launches... but to where? (AFSC)

Last weekend (Saturday, Jan. 17th), one of the most powerful rockets on the planet thundered to life at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, carrying something into space. Although the world has a good idea as to what this something was, it was a reminder that even during these times of intense media scrutiny and the guise of government transparency that there is a lot going on in space that we may never know about. However, far from clandestine launches at the dead of night being a bad thing, they appear to whet the worlds appetite for finding out more about the top secret military payloads routinely being put into orbit…
Continue reading “Why Are Clandestine Space Launches So Sexy?”

Oh No! Rocket Launches Are Bad for the Environment? We’d Better Stay at Home Then

A small environmental impact, Falcon 1 launches in September 2008 (SpaceX)
A small environmental impact, Falcon 1 launches in September 2008 (SpaceX)

For every article written about the amazing advances in space vehicle technology, there are two negative comments about the pointlessness of space exploration.What’s the point?“, “We have war, famine, poverty and human suffering around the world, why invest billions on space?“, “What’s space exploration ever done for me?“. However, today, after I wrote a pretty innocuous article about the awesome SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket being hoisted vertically on the launchpad at Cape Canaveral, I get a comment (anonymous, naturally) starting off with, “This launch and others like it should be halted indefinitely until it’s carbon footprint and environmental impact can be accounted for.” The commenter then goes into something about making an environmental assessment, levying SpaceX’s taxes and setting up a board of environmental scientists. Oh please.

On the one hand, I’m impressed by this person’s spirited stand against environmental damage, carbon emissions and global warming, but on the other, this is probably one of the most misplaced environmentalism attacks I have seen to date. There are extremists on both sides of the “green” debate, but the last thing we need is an attack against the only answer we have to fight climate change. And that answer comes in the form of a cigar shaped polluter, blasting into Earth orbit; whether you like it or not, it is a necessary (yet small) evil…
Continue reading “Oh No! Rocket Launches Are Bad for the Environment? We’d Better Stay at Home Then”

In a Picture: Snoopy’s Apollo 10

Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford pats the nose of a stuffed Snoopy held by Jamye Flowers (Coplin), Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper's secretary (NASA)
Apollo 10 commander Tom Stafford pats the nose of a stuffed Snoopy held by Jamye Flowers (Coplin), Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper's secretary (NASA)

On May 1969, Apollo 10 astronauts Gene Cernan, John Young and Thomas Stafford orbited the Moon on a reconnaissance mission that would lead to the first lunar landing by Apollo 11 later that year. During the mission, the lunar module came within 50,000 feet of the surface, to “snoop around”. It is therefore fitting that the module should be called Snoopy and the Apollo command module be named Charlie Brown.

In the scene above, Jamye Flowers Coplin (Gemini astronaut Gordon Cooper’s secretary) hugging a stuffed Snoopy, sees off the Apollo 10 crew as they make their way to the launch pad. Mission commander Tom Stafford gives Snoopy a rub on the nose.

Later this month, Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa, will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 10 mission with an exhibition of the connection between the three pioneering astronauts and the tenacious cartoon beagle.

Snoopy’s connection with NASA actually began before Apollo 10. In 1968, NASA chose the beagle as an icon who would “emphasize mission success and act as a ‘watchdog’ for flight safety.”

Established that same year, the agency’s “Silver Snoopy Award” is considered the astronauts personal award, given for outstanding efforts that contribute to the success of human space flight missions. Award winners receive a sterling silver Snoopy lapel pin flown in space, along with a certificate and letter of appreciation from NASA astronauts. Fewer than 1% of the workforce is recognized with a Silver Snoopy annually, making it one of the most prized awards in the industry.

NASA press release, Jan. 5th 2009

For me, the scene captures a very special moment in space flight history, one that I find strangely moving. The pride, excitement and bravery of the time are communicated wonderfully.

snoopy_moon

Merge NASA with the Military? Scrap Constellation? Really?

A Delta IV Medium rocket launch (USAF)
A Delta IV Medium rocket launch (USAF)

Actually, I’m not overly surprised by this news, but it could be a kick in the teeth for the future of the US civilian space program. According to Bloomberg News late Thursday night, the Obama transition team will probably (note “probably”, not “possibly”) advise a collaboration between NASA and the Pentagon to fast-track development of the next launch vehicle.

But there’s a catch, Constellation doesn’t appear to be a part of the plan.

Apparently feeling the pressure from diplomatic issues with Russia, and China signalling a renewed vigour in their intent to land on the Moon before NASA’s planned 2020 landing, the Obama administration is looking for a cost-effective solution to the Shuttle decommissioning in 2010. Unfortunately the Constellation program has never been considered “cost effective”, it’s always been considered the best course of action. With the economic noose tightening around all government departments, the US space agency has been finding it very hard to explain the ballooning costs and technical challenges associated with Constellation.

Last year, the Pentagon’s space program received $22 billion, one third more than NASA’s entire budget, so it seems reasonable that funds could be shared. But it sounds like NASA could be merging certain aspects of the civilian space program with the US military space program, probably scrapping Constellation and making military Delta IV and Atlas V rockets “human rated”…
Continue reading “Merge NASA with the Military? Scrap Constellation? Really?”

SpaceX Falcon 9 Fully Integrated at Cape Canaveral

The Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral (SpaceX)
The Falcon 9 at Cape Canaveral (SpaceX)

As the first post of 2009, I couldn’t think of a more worthy topic: SpaceX. Elon Musk’s private spaceflight company is accelerating its progress ever since the successful launch of the Falcon 1 (Flight 4) in September. Just last week, it was announced that NASA had signed a $1.6 billion contract for 12 SpaceX launches to resupply the International Space Station over the next decade. As if that wasn’t enough, we start the New Year with some more great news, the heavy-lift rocket, Falcon 9, has just been assembled at Cape Canaveral in preparation for it to be hoisted vertically so it can begin preparations for its first launch.

Falcon 9 is now fully integrated at the Cape! Today we mated the 5.2 m payload fairing to the Falcon 9 first stage (see below). This was the final step in the integration process—one day ahead of schedule.

With Falcon 9 integrated, our focus shifts to the big launch mount and erector. All the pieces have been delivered, and the coming days will see a tremendous amount of welding to join them all together.

The long hours put in by the SpaceX team over the last several weeks, particularly the folks on the ground at the Cape, are certainly paying off. Once the launch mount and erector are complete, we’ll transfer Falcon 9 on to the erector and raise it to vertical early in 2009. Happy New Year!

SpaceX press release (Dec. 30th)

And just in case you wanted to see just how quickly this company ships and assembles their rockets, check out the image below. This is the same Falcon 9 first stage as the one above pre-paint-job, before being shipped from the Hawthorn facility in LA, during my visit in October. How time flies…

Falcon 9 1st stage in the SpaceX rocket-manufacturing facility in Hawthorn, CA (© Ian O'Neill)
Falcon 9 1st stage in the SpaceX rocket-manufacturing facility in Hawthorn, CA (© Ian O'Neill)

What an exciting year 2009 is shaping up to be. We are living in historic times for commercial spaceflight, with SpaceX spearheading a new age for space travel…

SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Awarded NASA Contracts: $3.5 Billion Total

SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS (SpaceX)
SpaceX Dragon approaches the ISS (SpaceX)

NASA has just signed two very large cheques for two private spaceflight companies, Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corporation. The contracts will allow private launches to re-supply the International Space Station beyond Shuttle decommissioning in 2010, and SpaceX claims they could be doing it by next year.

These contracts represent some of the largest ever given to private enterprise, and demonstrates the trust the US space agency is placing in these space start-ups. The contracts are worth $3.5 billion combined; $1.9 billion for Orbital Sciences and $1.6 billion for SpaceX, equating to 8 flights from Orbital and 12 flights from SpaceX. For now, these contracts are for cargo deliveries only, replacing the Shuttle and providing a viable alternative to the Russian Progress flights. Critically, the US now has a very real prospect to bridge the “5-year gap” from Shuttle retirement (2010) and Constellation launch (2015).

All we need now is for SpaceX’s Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket system to become “human rated” and we could see the first routine commercial launches of US astronauts before the Constellation Program is even rolled out onto the launchpad. Very exciting times

Source: Universe Today, SpaceX

The Space Exploration Crisis

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency
President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?

Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?

Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.

However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind.
Continue reading “The Space Exploration Crisis”

Top 5 Space Exploration Mishaps of 2008

Houston, our toy rocket appears to be on fire. Photo by Jurvetson (flickr)

In the last 12 months, we’ve seen some of the most astonishing advances in space exploration technology. From SpaceX launching the first commercial rocket into Earth orbit to seeing the first Chinese spacewalk, all of our endeavours in space will help develop the future of manned spaceflight. Even the recently published Time Magazine Top 10 Scientific Discoveries list space and physics endeavours high up the list.

However, there is a flip-side to this coin. Fortunately there has been no loss of life through manned spaceflight in 2008, but we’ve had our fair share of mishaps. Some have been expensive, some just embarrassing, but each one has taught us what to do, and what not to do, as we begin to venture further from the protective atmosphere of Earth. So, to recognise our mistakes, and move on from them, here are the Top 5 Space Exploration mishaps of 2008…
Continue reading “Top 5 Space Exploration Mishaps of 2008”